May 31, 2018 in Analysis

Analysis of Munch's "The Scream"

Before embarking on the full-dress analysis of “The Scream”, it would be wise to delve into a few relevant facts from Munch’s biography. The rationale for doing this is that a smattering of knowledge about Edvard Munch could be put to useful and highly practical purposes when analyzing the painting. Thus, Edvard Munch was a celebrated Norwegian painter working on the cusp of the fin-de-siècle era. He made the first discreet forays into painting in the early childhood when he reproduced the paintings of the prominent Norwegian artists exhibited at the Art Association in Oslo. At the age of 16, he enrolled in a vocational school to study engineering but, to the chagrin of his father, was forced to drop out because of the frequent maladies and a calling for painting. Indeed, it was as a painter that aspired to find his true métier. To this end, he matriculated at the Royal School of Art and Design in Oslo at the age of 18, where he apprenticed with the naturalistic master Christian Krohg. Shortly after the graduation, Munch traveled to France, Germany and Italy to immerse himself in the artistic atmosphere and glean new experience. In Paris, he attended Bonnat’s drawing lessons and museum trips. Although Munch described these lessons as “tiresome and numbing”, nothing could douse his enthusiasm (Prideaux 110). In Germany, his exhibition stirred up a great brouhaha, thereby bringing Munch out of obscurity. 

His world outlook was influenced by the ideas of August Strindberg, Knut Hamsun and other representatives of the Scandinavian symbolism. Thus, there is little wonder that his works are saturated with the themes of symbolism, such as solitude, sorrow, ostracism and death. Munch’s early oeuvre perfectly dovetailed into the modern style but soon began to take on certain distinctive qualities, including dissonant color choice and dynamic composition, which intensified the feeling of fatality in his paintings and anticipated the emergence of expressionism. At that time, the image of a woman became central in Munch’s works. He painted both scantily clad women whose diaphanous clothes left little to the imagination and those in conservative dresses. One way or the other, Munch gave only a perfunctory attention to the visage of his models. Judging by the highest standards, he attempted to portray the internal rather than external world of individuals. This luminary of Norwegian painting did not mind being accused of having a penchant for sketchiness and did not like what he referred to as “beautiful” paintings. Many even dismissed his pictures as “travesty of art” (Prideaux 34).

By the time Munch finished the first of his four “Screams” in 1893, his mother and his favorite sister Sophie had succumbed to galloping consumption, a wasting disease affecting pulmonary system. Probably, this was exactly the reason why hectic flushes predominated in many of his works. These losses resulted in Edvard’s father developing rabid pietism that drove him into the abyss of insanity. In 1884, Edvard lost his father to heart failure, while another sister was incarcerated in a mental center. Munch admitted that he had contemplated suicide in the wake of these events, but managed to channel the sufferings pestering him into the artistic realm instead (Prideaux 115). His painting “The Sick Child”, based on Edvard’s recollections of his sister’s death, vaulted him onto the world stage. Munch did not have a vested interest in his works being perched in the world’s most prestigious museums. On the contrary, throughout his life, he remained wedded to the idea of imparting his feelings to the audience. “It is startling how the central figures in Munch’s paintings are staring out at the audience as if conveying a message directly to the viewer” (Monroe 86). According to Munch, “All art, literature as well as music must be created with one’s heat blood” (cited in Monroe 86).

On the cusp of the fin-de-siècle, the hitherto-simmering conflict between the traditionalists and the new-generation painters reached its apogee. They splintered into the two hostile camps – reactionary and revolutionary – with Munch subsuming under the latter category. According to Aspden, 

He was at once a realist reeling from social and psychological tensions caused by women’s emancipation, and an existentialist avant la lettre” at the same time. The majority of canvases that the artist painted over the two decades from the 1890s till 1910s comprised his unfinished cycle “The Frieze of Life – a Poem About Life, Love and Death. 

“The Scream”, deemed by many to be Munch’s magnum opus, was one of the most spectacular paintings that comprised this monumental cycle. First of all, it would be logical to illuminate the context in which this painting was produced. Explaining the ideas that were swirling in the mind of Munch when he decided to paint “The Scream”, Rosenberg uses the artist’s own words:

I was walking along the road with two of my friends. The sun set – the sky became a bloody red. And I felt a touch of melancholy – I stood still, dead tired – over the blue-black fjord and city hung blood and tongues of fire. My friends walked on – I stayed behind – trembling with freight – I felt the great scream in nature.

Many experts opine that the year 1893, when the first version of “The Scream” was produced, had ushered in a new period in the history of the modern painting. A sexless, gaunt and wilted creature depicted against the background of fiery sunset landscape became the symbol of expressionism. It is quite interesting that the creature has no face; in lieu of this, Munch painted an emotion. Any other artist had not done this before Edvard Munch. His depiction of a raw emotion through artistic creativity resulted in him being categorized as an existentialist. In this context, it would be wise to refer to Jean-Paul Sartre’s view of existentialism because it perfectly describes Munch’s creative life:

The existentialist frankly states that man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows: When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. There are many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But we affirm that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it. (Cunningham and Reich 746)

 Today, the image has become a universal symbol of existential dread and angst. In terms of popularity, it is comparable only to “The Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci. Rosenberg maintains that Edvard Munch “has been mercilessly parodied, in Warhol’s silk screens, on an episode of “The Simpsons” and at every Halloween”. Moreover, it has been depicted on T-shirts and trinkets and in comic books. The multitudes of people stand in long queues for hours and throng into museum halls to see “The Scream”. “The child actor McAuley Culkin aped the open-mouthed expression of horror in an advertising poster for Home Alone” (Aspden). The fact that The New Yorker receives at least two “Scream”-inspired cartoons every week is yet another proof of the wide popularity of this theme (Aspden). There are even chips in the form of a screaming head. Thus, there are sufficient grounds to aver that the image sells. The picture itself was sold for roughly $120 million in 2012, becoming one of the most expansive paintings ever. However, the hefty price of Munch’s chef-d'oeuvre is explained by the recent tendencies in the market rather than by the quality thereof. After all, if Jackson Pollock’s “No 5, 1948”, which is not obviously as imposing as Munch’s iconic work, could bring its owner $140 million, “The Scream” simply could not fetch less. As paradoxical as it sounds, even Andy Warhol’s reproduction of “The Scream” made only with minor changes to the original fetched nearly $450,000 at Sotheby’s in 2012, showing that interest in Munch’s works is not a mere affectation (Aspden).

Peculiar imagery and unusual use of heightened colors, both radical at the time, combined with Munch’s heavy reliance on innovative painting techniques have earned him an impeccable reputation. The scenery of “The Scream” is a fiery sunset on an unidentified, albeit multitudinous, water body. It is a matter of fact that if some other artist was to paint the same scenery that Munch did, they would definitely make it look like a beautiful sunset. The fact that Munch transformed a potentially bewitching sunset into an expression of sheer dread and anguish is a testament to his revolutionary spirit and probably a corollary of his bipolar disorder. Munch’s skillful use of brush strokes gives the scenery a sense of motion. The lurid reflection of immense fires that hang in the sky intensified by an image of a fatal figure crouching on the bridge makes “The Scream” look sinister and creepy. Indeed, the violence of the background and a feverish visage of the figure are the two main qualities that give the viewers a febrile chill.

As mentioned before, the face is painted in a simple manner without concentrating on the details so that one can think that the painting resembles a cartoon. Hands of the mysterious creature are ridiculously big in proportion to its body, thereby intensifying the initial dread. The meticulously painted nature looms over the figure and threatens to engulf it. With its back turned on the friends, who saunter with an air of insouciance in the opposite direction, the creature has nothing else to do but embrace the inevitability of being. Since there is nothing that can protect it from the forces outside its control, the creature, be it the figure depicted by Munch or the viewer who has imagined him or herself being in the place of the creature, cannot help but scream. Appropriate color choice enhances the tension of the picture insomuch that it renders the viewing experience difficult. Indeed, the aggressive vermilions and unearthly ambers come into conflict with the ceruleans and other pales. However, if “The Scream” was painted in black and white, it would not be as tense. Figure 1 demonstrates this point clearly.

“The Scream” is so rich in symbolism that any attempt to unravel its meaning risks spoiling the effect, but it is definitely worth a try. Munch milked the irony because these uncontrolled forces of nature are in fact simply an apt metaphor for the real consternation swirling in the mind of the viewers. While the friends carry on a blithe promenade and distant boats furrow the serene waters, a violent tempest cuts a swathe of destruction between the gargantuan hands of the creature. The stormy skies and waters are in essence but a projection from the head of the creature, in the same way that the internal anguish of the viewers is internal and needs externalization to be understood. Apparently, any attempt to brush it aside would be the scream. 

The article chosen for the purposes of this paper is Peter Aspden’s “So What Does ‘The Scream’ Mean?” in the Financial Times. The first argument that the author makes is that Munch’s painting is one of the most disturbing in the history of contemporary art. According to Aspden, “It depicts a moment of psychic calamity, of shattered nerves”. He further argues that “The Scream” has transformed from being an ill-reputed product of Munch’s distorted vision of expressionism laden with unnecessary sorrow into one of the world’s most recognizable artworks ever. It took Munch’s legacy, represented in the given case by “a vision from the haunted dusk of the 19th century”, approximately 100 years to hit the mainstream. Aspden intimates that the affluent are not willing anymore to spend exorbitant sums on the pictures of sunflowers and water lilies – hinting cautiously at the paintings of Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet – in the age of great instability and turbulence. He asserts, “The swirling chaos and vacant expression evident in Munch’s most famous work has become a touchstone for our troubled times” (Aspden). Indeed, at the time when the specter of financial Armageddon is stalking the world, “The Scream” takes on a peculiar aura and symbolizes the fears of the masses. Yet, Aspden offers another interpretation of why “The Scream” is gaining ever-wider approbation of serious critics. “It is the malleability of the picture’s imagery that has made it ripe for the appropriation by our promiscuous visual age” (Aspden).

Peter Aspden argues that the version of “The Scream” produced in 1895 and sold recently for almost $120 million stands out against the background of other three versions due to several reasons. First of all, the vivacity and vitality of Munch’s pastels in the 1985’s version are profoundly shocking or even uncannily eerie if presented in the room that has a “half-chapel, half-nightclub air” (Aspden). Second, it is the only one of four versions that incorporates Munch’s hand-painted poem that explains the raison d'être behind producing “The Scream” series. Munch argued that this painting was an attempt to convey “the great scream in nature” rather than a scream on the face of the human being-like creature. It is as if he had a gloomy foreboding of what devastation was going to be visited on nature. Petter Olsen, a former owner of “The Scream”, argues that Munch’s premonition corresponded with the “feeling of doom in Vienna and Berlin in the 1890s”, and so it does today.

Aspden argues that this version of “The Scream” has a fraught history

The Olsen family developed close ties with Edvard Munch in the early 1920s, when Petter’s father founded a shipping company in the immediate vicinity of Munch’s seaside abode. Reminiscing about his father’s friendship with Munch, Petter conjures up how Munch grumbled about young sailors capsizing close to where his father was working (cited in Aspden). Munch also painted a portrait of Petter’s mother in 1932. In addition to “The Scream”, the Olsen family owned up to 35 pieces of the painter’s oeuvre. According to Aspden, “When Munch’s work was declared degenerate by the Nazis; the museums across Germany were stripped of his art.” However, 74 of his artworks were saved from the profanation of the Nazis by the cherished ministrations of Petter’s father, who clinched a bargain with the German government in the run-up to World War II. “The Scream” itself, on the other hand, could well have been decimated by the depredations of the insects because it lied hidden in a hay barn in central Norway until the hostilities subsided in 1945. Then followed a legal wrangling between the Olsen brothers over the inheritance of their mother, and the two of them are still feuding (Aspden).

Simon Show of Sotheby’s makes an important argument that Munch was clever enough not to explain what he meant by “The Scream” (cited in Aspden). He further contends that the picture has the ability to bear many different meanings, despite the fact that Munch himself described it as the scream of the nature (cited in Aspden). Both “The Mona Lisa” and “The Scream” are mesmerizing pictures, but there is something special about the latter that even the former lacks. In juxtaposition to “The Mona Lisa”, which looks exactly as people expect it to look, “The Scream” transcends all expectations. Aspden reasons that “The Scream” has come to represent a wide range of anxieties experienced by people in what he calls a “fast-moving, multilayered, and disorienting” society (Aspden). Many empathize with Edvard Munch because they have their own personal screams. Indeed, the posture of the creature on the picture is such a general image that everybody can interpret it as speaking to his or her own inner anguishes. Summing up the arguments made by Peter Aspden, “The Scream” symbolizes angst and anxieties of modern humans in today’s frenetic society.

By the end of the 1910s, Edvard Munch realized that he could not handle all his psychological issues single-handedly. Alcohol was a bad, nay, abominable solution to his long-standing problems. It was at this time that Munch was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. Even after an intensive care course in the hospital, the illness continued plaguing Edvard, but he learned to live with it. Thus, it is not accidental that Rosenberg called Munch’s “The Scream” a “zeitgeisty little outburst of psychosis”. What is more important, Munch acknowledged that the sufferings caused by this illness were the impelling force behind his creativity. As Munch wittily put it, “I would not cast off my illness, for there is much in my art that I owe to it” (cited in Hume 37). Just like Nietzsche, Munch was steadfast in his belief that suffering was a driving force behind any piece of art. It is interesting that Edvard Munch never drew from life and derived his ideas from his own inner world. He even coined a famous aphorism, “The camera cannot compete with brush and palette – as long as it cannot be used in Heaven or Hell” (Tashiro 139). “The Scream” is a quintessential example of what was going on in the head of Edvard Munch. This paper has shown that “The Scream” is not only one of the best-known artworks in existence, but it is also one of the most exposed to contumely. However, all the controversy surrounding this picture appears to be a good publicity for it. Although experts believe that Munch’s iconic work captures the zeitgeist of the fin-de-siècle, it describes the atmosphere of the 21st century as well. The picture is rich in symbolism, but each person understands this symbolism differently. The skies that arch overhead and threaten to consume the figure are largely a metaphor for the besetting problems with which people have to grapple every day. As Aspden puts it, “Munch’s masterwork may have saved its loudest howl for our own complacent age”.   

Works Cited

  1. Aspden, Peter. “So, What Does ‘The Scream’ Mean?” Financial Times. 21 Apr. 2012. Web. 11 May 2014. <http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/42414792-8968-11e1-85af-00144feab49a.html#axzz31QvwcAA5>.
  2. Cunningham, Lawrence, and John Reich. Culture and Values, Volume II: A Survey of the Humanities with Readings. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.
  3. Hume, Helen. The Art Teacher’s Book of Lists. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2010. Print.
  4. Monroe, Russell. Creative Brainstorms: The Relationship between Madness and Genius. New York: Ardent Media, 1992. Print. 
  5. Prideaux, Sue. Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Print.
  6. Rosenberg, Karen. “That Open Mouth and Its Silent Voice.” The New York Times. 25 Oct. 2012. Web. 10 May 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/26/arts/design/edvard-munch-the-scream-at-museum-of-modern-art.html?_r=0>.
  7. Tashiro, Charles. Pretty Pictures: Production Design and the History Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998. Print.

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